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Are Illiberal Democracies on the March in Europe?

Among the issues pressing on the mind of French President Emmanuel Macron as he prepares for a state visit to Washington on Monday is what he describes as a “civil war” between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism in Europe. 

In a recent speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron called on the European Union to resist the siren song of populism.

“There is a fascination with the illiberal and it’s growing all the time.”

Macron’s comments come after euroskeptic populists won elections in Hungary and Italy, and as the EU confronts Poland’s right-wing government over the rule of law.

“I reject this idea that is spreading in Europe that democracy would be condemned to powerlessness. In the face of authoritarianism that everywhere surrounds us, the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” Macron said. 

Many on both sides of the Atlantic are pondering the dangers of illiberalism and autocracy — especially in Central and Eastern Europe — and what it might mean for the future of the continent.

Illiberal democracy or populism?

In front of an audience of Washington policy experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski challenged the view of Hungary’s populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, that a democracy “is not necessarily liberal.”

Sikorski said that while there can certainly be democracies where non-liberals win, populists are distinct. 

“In order to win, populists first need to focus on something that is popular and they did. They focused on an issue that was at the height of public attention in all of Europe, namely migration,” Sikorski said.

Orban, whose Fidesz party and its allies won a sweeping election victory earlier this month, said the outcome gave him “a strong mandate” to restrict migrant rights and push for a European Union of independent nations rather than a “United States of Europe.”

Charles Gati, professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland, said that by and large, the Eastern and Central European countries that have been admitted to the European Union are on a good path. He did, however, add that “backsliding democracies” would not be the right way to describe what is happening in Poland and Hungary. 

“They are either authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian regimes that maintain the facade of democratic processes.”

Heather Conley is a senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said many factors may be contributing to the current trend in Europe.

“Weakened opposition and then policies and structures that purposely reduce and weaken that opposition, that’s really for me a hallmark of this trend toward illiberalism,” she said.

Central European or global trend?

Sikorski warned against applying regional labels when talking about populist or illiberal tendencies. 

“This is not a Central European phenomenon. This is a Pan-Western phenomenon,” he said.

In its latest issue, Foreign Affairs magazine asks the question, “Is Democracy Dying? — A Global Report,” which analyzes the issue not only in Europe, but the United States, China and other countries. According to the magazine, “Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution.”

For David Frum, a senior editor with The Atlantic magazine, democracy is better seen “as a dimmer switch, rather than a light switch, not on or off but brighter or darker.”

“If it’s possible to become a more liberal democracy in one direction, in the same way you can become gradually a less liberal democracy, without going through the full overthrow of your state,” he said.

Sikorski said he worries that illiberal tendencies in formerly communist countries may have larger consequences.

“We have reawakened stereotypes about the region that were on the way to being buried and we have contributed to the decline in the willingness of Western Europe to consider further Eastern enlargement.”

Can the trend be reversed?

In an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, academics, writers and activists criticized her for not standing up to Orban’s attacks on Hungarian democracy.

Sikorski, however, said the EU cannot do much because the whole confederation is based on the idea of mutual trust among institutions in individual member countries. 

“If this mechanism of trust is broken, then the consequences are very profound for the whole union.”

The EU may have important leverage. The last seven-year budget granted Poland nearly one-fifth of the EU’s cohesion funds and negotiations over the next budget begin in May. So, under pressure for its controversial changes to the legal system, which critics say put judges under the control of the ruling party, amendments have been submitted to parliament to reverse some of those revisions. 

Gati says the way to counter illiberalism in Hungary is through voting. 

“I think it’s possible that next year when there are municipal elections, Budapest will go to the opposition,” he said.

And Frum said it is important not to pathologize Central and Eastern Europe. 

“There is a flu going around the neighborhood; some people have got a much worse case than others and some people have weaker immunity than others, but do understand that it’s the same flu that we are all getting.”

Whether this is a flu or an epidemic, one thing is for sure: there are no clear prescriptions. 

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Report: Sanctions-Hit Russian Firms Seek $1.6B in Liquidity

Russian companies hit by U.S. sanctions, including aluminum giant Rusal, have asked for 100 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) in liquidity support from the government, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Friday.

The United States on April 6 imposed sanctions against several Russian entities and individuals, including Rusal and its major shareholder, Oleg Deripaska, to punish Moscow for its suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and other alleged “malign activity.”

Rusal, the world’s second-biggest aluminum producer, has been particularly hard hit as the sanctions have caused concern among some customers, suppliers and creditors that they could be blacklisted, too, through association with the company.

“Temporary nationalization” is an option for some sanctions-hit companies, but not Rusal, Siluanov was quoted as saying. He did not name the companies he was referring to.

A Kremlin spokesman had said Thursday that temporary nationalization was an option for helping Rusal.

According to another news agency, RIA, Rusal has requested only government support with liquidity and with demand for aluminum so far, Siluanov said.

RIA quoted the minister as saying the government was not considering state purchases of aluminum for now.

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US Says China, Iran, Russia Are ‘Forces for Instability’

The United States has labeled China and Russia “forces of instability” because of their human rights records, along with North Korea and Iran.

In its annual global human rights report released Friday, the State Department singled out those four countries for violating basic human rights, including freedom of expression and the protection of religious and ethnic minorities.

Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan said in an introduction to the report that the four countries “violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis.”

Sullivan said states that restrict freedom of expression and allow violence against members of religious, ethnic and other minority groups are “morally reprehensible and undermine our interests.”

The report says Russia allows a “climate of impunity” for human rights abuses, doing little to punish those who carry out such crimes. It also describes Russia’s government as an “authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”

On China, the report says the government carries out arbitrary detentions, executions and forced disappearances. It also says the government puts “significant restrictions” on freedoms of speech, religion and movement.

The report also condemns the violence against Burma’s Rohingya minority.

Sullivan told reporters that the United States was working with its partners to address the crisis in Burma, in which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled the country after a government crackdown on Rohingya militants. The United Nations accuses Burma of conducting coordinated attacks against the population, likening the action to “ethnic cleaning.”

“Those responsible for the violations, abuses and attacks must be held accountable,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also spoke about Syria, saying the “entire world is aware of the horrendous human rights abuses in Syria, including barrel bombing of civilians, attacks on hospitals, and widespread reports of rape and abuse by Syrian government personnel.”

Human rights groups were quick to criticize Friday’s report, noting that it had been stripped of its reporting on reproductive rights. This is the first year the report does not contain a section on reproductive rights since 2012, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added the topic. 

Rights group Amnesty International said “reproductive rights are human rights, and omitting the issue signals the Trump administration’s latest retreat from global leadership on human rights.”

The group also criticized the report for not being critical enough of the governments of U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

VOA’s Cindy Saine contributed to this report.

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Commonwealth Leaders Ponder Future as Britain Prepares to Exit Europe

Heads of state from across the world are gathered in London this week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The organization emerged from the breakdown of the British Empire in the last century, and critics say it has failed to shake off its colonial legacy. But as Henry Ridgwell reports, the Commonwealth is under renewed focus in London, as Britain looks for new global partnerships after it leaves the European Union next year.

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US Tells Russia to Address Election Concerns, Chemical Weapons

White House national security adviser John Bolton told Russia’s ambassador on Thursday that better relations between the two countries required addressing U.S. concerns on election meddling, a chemical attack in Britain, and the situations in Ukraine and Syria, the White House said.

It was the first meeting between Bolton, who started at the White House this month, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov, the administration said in a statement.

Bolton told Antonov it was in the interest of both countries to have better relations, but Russia must address allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and poisoned a former Russian spy in Britain, the statement said. Moscow has denied both allegations.

The statement said the United States also had concerns about the situations in Ukraine, where Russia backs separatists, and in Syria, where Moscow’s military support has tipped the balance in favor of the Damascus government in a seven-year-old civil war.

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Switzerland or Swaziland? Be Confused No More

Breathe easy, Switzerland: The tiny African kingdom of Swaziland is changing its name.

King Mswati III announced it during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence and his 50th birthday. It appears to be as easy as that, as the king is an absolute monarch.

Many African countries upon independence “reverted to their ancient, native names,” he said. “We no longer shall be called Swaziland from today forward.”

The kingdom will be known by its historic name of eSwatini. The king has used that name in the past at openings of Parliament and other events.

Some Swiss have responded with relief as the countries often are confused on online forms.

It is not immediately clear how much it will cost the landlocked African country to make the name change.

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Fears Grow at Malaria’s Resurgence; London Summit Urges Global Action

After 16 years of steady decline, malaria cases are on the rise again globally, and experts warn that unless efforts to tackle the disease are stepped up, the gains could be lost. Henry Ridgwell reports from a malaria summit Wednesday in London, where delegates called for a boost in funding for global anti-malarial programs.

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Macedonia ‘Back on Track’ Toward EU Membership  

Macedonia is “back on track” toward European Union membership, the EU foreign policy chief says, urging Macedonia to keep carrying out recommended EU reforms.

The EU’s Federica Mogherini congratulated Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev during a visit to Skopje Wednesday.

“You’ve gone a long way and, yes, the good news is … that you’re back,” Mogherini said. “I think this is a major achievement you have to be proud of. You can celebrate.”

But the EU official urged Zaev to deepen and maintain the recommended economic reforms needed to meet EU standards.

She also said she believes it is “definitely possible” for Macedonia and Greece to resolve the long-standing name dispute before the next scheduled EU summit in June.

Greece has been holding up EU and NATO membership for Macedonia because of their feud over the name Macedonia — used by both the former Yugoslav republic and the ancient region of northern Greece. 

Many Greeks say allowing the neighboring country to use the name Macedonia insults Greek history and implies a claim on Greek territory.

Macedonians say changing their country’s name or even modifying it in a deal with Greece would be like committing treason.

Greek and Macedonian leaders have opened talks on a settlement after years of unsuccessful efforts by the United Nations.

Among the proposals is calling the country New, Upper, or North Macedonia.

Macedonia has already changed the name of the main airport from Alexander the Great Airport — for the ancient Greek hero — to Skopje International Airport.

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Britain Spy Case: Watchdog Rejects Russia Nerve Agent Claim

The head of the global chemical watchdog agency on Wednesday rejected Russian claims that traces of a second nerve agent were discovered in the English city where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.


Britain blames Russia for the attack, which it says was carried out by smearing a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok on a door handle at Sergei Skripal’s house in Salisbury. Moscow denies involvement.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow received confidential information from the laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, that analyzed samples from the site of the March 4 poisoning in Salisbury.


He said the analysis – done at the request of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – indicated that samples contained BZ nerve agent and its precursor. He said BZ was part of the chemical arsenals of the U.S., Britain and other NATO countries, while the Soviet Union and Russia never developed the agent.


OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu told a meeting Wednesday of the organization’s Executive Council that a BZ precursor known as 3Q “was contained in the control sample prepared by the OPCW Lab in accordance with the existing quality control procedures.”

He added “it has nothing to do with the samples collected by the OPCW team in Salisbury.”


Britain’s representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Peter Wilson, slammed the Russian foreign minister’s comments as a breach of the treaty outlawing chemical weapons.

“The thing for me that was particularly alarming about Lavrov’s statement is, first of all, the OPCW goes to enormous lengths to make sure that the identity of laboratories is confidential and, second of all, either the Russians are hacking the laboratories or they are making stuff up,” he said. “Either way, that is a violation of the confidentiality of the Chemical Weapons Convention.”


In a summary of its report last week, the OPCW didn’t name Novichok as the nerve agent used but it confirmed “the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury.”


Wilson told reporters that the OPCW “confirmed that they found what we found, and that is a Novichok.”

Russia’s representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Alexander Shulgin, repeated Moscow’s denials and accused Britain of a string of lies.


“For now, I will only say one thing: the claim that the Technical Secretariat confirmed that this chemical points to its Russian origin is an outright lie,” he said in a statement posted on his embassy’s website. “The report itself does not say a single word about the name ‘Novichok;’ the CWC simply does not contain such a concept.”


Shulgin at a later news conference accused Britain of trying to turn the executive council meeting into “a kangaroo court” and suggested that Britain could have arranged the attack on the Skripals to counter domestic tensions over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.


“Perhaps the government of Theresa May, weakened by the troubles associated with Brexit, needs society to rally around this government,” he said.


Shulgin also said Russia wouldn’t accept the results of any report on the matter unless it gets full access to investigation details, consular access to the Skripals, and participation in the probe by Russian experts.


The envoy also spent several minutes of digression on Britain’s alleged “very impressive experience” of using poison abroad, including involvement in the 1916 poisoning of Rasputin, a self-styled mystic who held great influence with Czar Nicholas II’s wife.

The Skripals were hospitalized for weeks in critical condition. Yulia Skripal was discharged last week from Salisbury District Hospital, where her father continues to be treated.


Wilson told the meeting that London continues to believe evidence points to Russian involvement in the attempted assassination.


“We believe that only Russia had the technical means, operational experience and motive to target the Skripals,” Wilson said.


Wilson warned the Chemical Weapons Convention was being undermined by a growing use of nerve agents and other poisons, mentioning the 2017 assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, in addition to the Salisbury attack and the use of poison gas in Syria and Iraq.

“It is being continually violated,” Wilson told reporters.


He said the convention would be strengthened if all nations fully declared any stockpiles they still have. Member states are supposed to declare all their chemical weapons stocks upon joining the OPCW and destroy them.

The OPCW and Russia last year celebrated the destruction of the country’s final declared stocks.


 “Russia clearly has chemical weapons they are not declaring and they need to do that,” Wilson said.


The antagonism between Britain and Russia played out again in the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday afternoon after U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu briefed members on the OPCW findings.


Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russian responsibility for the attack was the only “plausible explanation.” She dismissed several Russian allegations that others were responsible, including one accusing Britain for drugging Yulia Skripal. She said the claim was “more than fanciful – this is outlandish.”


Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the council heard “the same lies” and “mendacious, baseless and slanderous” allegations that the U.K. has been putting forward since the attack. He said the OPCW report only confirmed that the substance could be produced in a well-equipped lab, stressing that such labs exist in the U.K., U.S. and a host of other countries.


Nebenzia said Russia agreed with Britain on one point: “There will be no impunity and the perpetrators will be held responsible.”

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Zuckerberg Under Pressure to Face EU Lawmakers Over Data Scandal

Facebook Inc’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg came under pressure from EU lawmakers on Wednesday to come to Europe and shed light on the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica that affected nearly three million Europeans.

The world’s largest social network is under fire worldwide after information about nearly 87 million users wrongly ended up in the hands of the British political consultancy, a firm hired by Donald Trump for his 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani last week repeated his request to Zuckerberg to appear before the assembly, saying that sending a junior executive would not suffice.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who recently spoke to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, said Zuckerberg should heed the lawmakers’ call.

“This case is too important to treat as business as usual,” Jourova told an assembly of lawmakers.

“I advised Sheryl Sandberg that Zuckerberg should accept the invitation from the European Parliament. (EU digital chief Andrius) Ansip refers to the invitation as a measure of rebuilding trust,” she said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Zuckerberg fielded 10 hours of questions over two days from nearly 100 U.S. lawmakers last week and emerged largely unscathed. He will meet Ansip in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Another European lawmaker Sophia in’t Veld echoed the call from her colleagues, saying that the Facebook CEO should do them the same courtesy.

“I think Zuckerberg would be well advised to appear at the Parliament out of respect for Europeans,” she said.

Lawmaker Viviane Reding, the architect of the EU’s landmark privacy law which will come into effect on May 25, giving Europeans more control over their online data, said the right laws would bring back trust among users.